Searching for a new home, Yassir Batal says Germany and its unfamiliar voices and customs are more enticing for his wife and five children than the wealthy Arab states whose culture, religion and language they share.
Like so many other Syrians who have escaped civil war, the 36-year-old has ruled out heading south through Jordan to Saudi Arabia or beyond. They wouldn’t be welcomed the same way, he said.
“In Europe, I can get treatment for my polio, educate my children, have shelter and live an honorable life,” said Batal, as he left a United Nations office in Beirut, the city that’s been the crossroads for more than a million refugees since the violence started in March 2011. “Gulf countries have closed their doors in the face of Syrians.”
Stories of fellow refugees suffocating in trucks or small children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea are doing little to tarnish the allure of Europe and the struggle to get there. As countries argue over how to cope with the scale of the tide of humanity, safer routes to the Gulf states remain blocked because of the difficulties gaining entry and concern over how migrants would be treated there.
Gulf countries have been active in the Syrian conflict and millions of dollars raised in some states have found their way to rebel groups, including extremists. While they also spent billions of dollars of aid to displaced people in camps in Jordan and Lebanon, they maintain strict controls on who can cross their borders. Most of the migrants fleeing the war are Sunni Muslim, like most Gulf citizens.
“I’m most indignant over the Arab countries who are rolling in money and who only take very few refugees,” Danish Finance Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said in an interview this week at his office in Copenhagen. “Countries like Saudi Arabia. It’s completely scandalous.”
Though they don’t have refugee camps, Gulf states have helped Syrians in different ways, said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates. The collapse in oil prices has reduced revenue, yet they are still among the richest countries in the world.
Several Gulf countries have offered extended stays to thousands of Syrians, allowing many to reunite with family members and take jobs.
The United Arab Emirates has provided more than 1.98 billion dirhams ($540 million) in relief and humanitarian assistance and established a refugee camp in Jordan and one in northern Iraq, according to a U.A.E. government official.
It’s in the best long-term interest of the refugees to be close to their homes so it will be easier for them to return when the conflict ends, said the official. Saudi and Qatari officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Gulf countries have long been wary of opening their doors to refugees, said Michael Stephens, a Middle East research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. In Qatar or the U.A.E., where native populations are the minority, even 30,000 could change the demographic balance.
“The Gulf states have always been very worried about security threats from Syrian refugees,” he said. But demographic and social pressures are not “enough of a reason” to decline accepting refugees, he said.
A Palestinian cartoonist in Sweden sketched refugees being turned away to a shark-infested sea. One published in Saudi Arabia showed a Gulf Arab with barbed wire around his door reprimanding the Europeans for not receiving the refugees.
“Have consciences died? Why can’t able countries like Gulf nations take part in hosting refugees?” Saudi cleric Salman Aloda tweeted to his 7 million followers on Aug. 29.
Tariq Al Shammari, a Saudi who heads the Council of Gulf International Relations lobby group, dismissed the criticism as “nonsense” and unfair.
“The Europeans turned a blind eye to what was happening in Syria until the crisis reached their shores,” Al Shammari said by telephone from Manama, Bahrain’s capital. “They just want to lay the blame on someone else.”
Syria is familiar to many Gulf Arabs. It was a playground for many enjoying the more liberal approach to life, shopping for clothes and lingerie and dining out with alcohol in Damascus.
The war there since has displaced more than 6 million people internally and sent more than 4 million registered refugees to other countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency. More than half are in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, while 1.9 million are in Turkey and 24,000 are in North Africa.
There are 500,000 Syrians in Saudi Arabia, according to Nabil Othman, acting regional representative to the Gulf region at the UNHCR. In official documentation they are referred to as “Arab brothers and sisters in distress,” he said.
Yet most migrants end up in places like Beirut and more recently, Budapest’s main Keleti railway station after trekking west. Germany and Hungary are now engaged in a verbal battle over who is responsible for dealing with the influx, while Britain is under pressure to accept more people.
“You’re not finding refugees swimming across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia because they don’t want to,” said Nuseibeh.
The Gulf absorbed Palestinian refugees in the past, particularly the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia.
Hussien is one of them. He grew up in a camp in Syria before moving to Dubai to work as a cashier. He thought he would stay in the U.A.E. for a few years, save money and return to Syria, but then the war took hold. After his wife was refused permission to join him from Sweden, Hussien is now planning to head the other way because she has permanent residency.
“We have to help each other as Arab countries, and they have money and space to contain it,” said Hussien, 30, who declined to give his last name because of concern he might anger the authorities. “Better than people going to Europe and dying there on the way.”
Last month, desperate to join their daughters in Sweden, his wife’s parents paid a smuggler to take them by boat from Libya to Italy. They drowned in the Mediterranean.
Outside the Swedish city of Gothenburg, Mahmoud Abbas, the artist, said he was driven to draw the cartoon by news of Syrians who were found decomposing in a truck abandoned on the highway connecting Budapest and Vienna last week.
“If our Arab heritage hasn’t moved us toward the people closest to us, then it’s a disaster,” he said.
In Beirut, Batal, whose home in the northern city of Idlib was demolished by shelling more than three months ago, headed to a Christian charity to seek help until he can arrange to move his family to Europe.
“We’re hoping Germany will send boats to Turkey to pick refugees up,” said Batal.